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Living Hedges, Fences Give Pura Vida Look to Costa Rican Gardens

July 25, 2008

If you are buying property here in Costa Rica or already have your piece of tropical paradise, sooner or later you’ll need to attend to your boundary lines. One good option is a living fence.

Living fences give Costa Rica that natural, pura vida look.

Alive and colorful, they provide privacy as well as a windbreak, while adding a touch of nature around the home. Creating a living fence is easy, and it can last for many decades. Living fences also play an important role in helping us cool down our atmosphere and prevent soil erosion. You’ll find they are useful for bordering walls and chain-link fences.

Many types of plants can be used for living fences. First, let’s divide them into two categories. Small properties usually require living hedges, while larger properties and farms employ living fences planted with different species of trees to which barbed wire is strung. Often the two types are combined to create a strong fence with a dense privacy hedge.

Living Hedges

Here are some profiles of the most popular foliage plants used for living hedges in the country.

Common name: Hibiscus

Spanish name: Amapola

Latin name: Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

This is the queen of the living hedges. This hardy plant provides thick, dense foliage with gorgeous flowers that bloom all year. The leaves and flowers are edible in salads. Livestock and chickens can also be fed these nutritious leaves. Woody stem cuttings from mature plants are used to propagate new hedges. Ticos like to plant 30-centimeter cuttings in a crisscross fashion, 15 cm apart, to provide a dense hedge. Maintenance involves trimming the hedges two or three times a year to maintain the desired height and width.

Common name: Croton

Spanish name: Crotón

Latin name: Croton niveus

Here’s the hardiest of all the living fences. These plants provide excellent coverage with spectacular foliage in colors ranging from red to yellow and green. Croton is one of the best choices for properties near the beach, because it tolerates salty ocean breezes. Stem cuttings can be used from your favorite varieties, planted directly in the soil about 15 cm apart. Loosen the soil well before you plant these cuttings along a border, and remember to keep them weed-free while they take root and begin to grow.

Common name: Bush clockvine

Spanish name: Chelite

Latin name: Thunbergia erecta

Campe s inos have many vernacular names for this hedge. Chelite is just one name used in our region. This plant with small green leaves and blue bell-like flowers makes one of the densest privacy hedges. Woody stem cuttings are used to propagate a living hedge with this handsome plant, which is also draught-resistant and hardy. It requires two or three clippings a year to keep it growing dense and compact.

Common name: Corn plant

Spanish name: Caña india

Latin name: Dracaena fragrans

This is an old-time favorite that can be seen in many neighborhoods around the country. Most people recognize caña indiaas a potted ornamental that graces homes and offices around the world. There are two varieties here: one is striped with yellow, while the other is simply green. When eight to 10 cm trunk cuttings of these plants are planted 30 cm apart along borders, they form a dense living hedge in several years. This type of living fence needs no pruning for many years, because each plant stem has a crown or tip that continually produces new growth.

Common name: Golden trumpet, allamanda

Spanish name: San José, alamanda

Latin name: Allamanda cathartica

This ornamental needs a strong fence to support its gangly vines and striking yellow buttercup flowers. Allamanda blooms most of the year and is draught-tolerant. Woody stem cuttings from mature plants can be planted directly in the soil along borders. Two yearly trimmings keep these plants looking dense and compact. They are ideal for covering chain-link fences.

Common name: Coral vine

Spanish name: Bellísima

Latin name: Antigonon leptopus

Here’s another draping vine that covers fences with a waterfall of foliage and beautiful pastel-rose flowers. This beauty is usually started from seeds, which can be collected under mature fence plantings. I like to start these delicate seeds in cups with prepared potting soil. I keep them in my greenhouse until the plants are hardy and then transplant them to their permanent sites. This type of living fence takes a few extra years to become well established as a privacy fence, but the results are spectacular.

Living Fences

For those readers who have larger properties, here are some popular trees used in Costa Rica for living fences.

Common name: Quick stick

Spanish name: Madero negro

Latin name: Gliricidia sepium

This tree is also known as madre de cacao and rat-killer tree. Young branches seven to 10 cm thick and 1.5 meters long are cut from mature trees and planted 30 cm deep and 1.5 m apart. These trees flower every dry season with regal pastel-violet flowers, which locals prepare in delicious omelets. We find them an attractive, edible addition to salads, too. The leaves can be used for treating head lice and ticks on cattle.

Common name: Spineless yucca

Spanish name: Itabo

Latin name: Yucca guatemalensis

The workhorse of the living fences, this hardy plant is found in most regions of the country and is often planted around coffee fields and on steep slopes to help prevent erosion.

It is draught-resistant and forms a formidable border with spiky leaves. Itabo can help you keep the neighbor’s cows out of your backyard; however, it presents a risk when it comes to eye accidents, particularly for children and pets. One way of reducing this risk is to plant trunk cuttings eight to 10 cm in diameter and 1.5 m tall, 30 to 40 cm deep and 1.5 to 2 m apart. In this manner, the spiky growth grows above head level. These plants flower during the dry season with a spike of white flowers, which are used like madero negro flowers in delicious omelets.

Common name: Mombin

Spanish name: Jocote

Latin name: Spondias purpurea

Here’s another living fence tree that provides a bonus: delicious fruits that are yellow or red when ripe. Jocote looks very much like madero negro, but with a little practice, you can easily distinguish the silver tone of the bark and the unique fruits.

Common/Spanish name: Guachipelín

Latin name: Diphysa americana

This is a popular living fence tree in the Central Valley and on the Pacific coast. It’s a hardy, draught-resistant tree, and its hard wood makes it valuable as firewood and handles for tools and construction. During the dry season, these trees bloom in lively yellow flowers to add an ornamental touch to the fence line. You can plant eight to 20 cm branch cuttings using the same technique mentioned for madero negro above.

It’s one of my favorites.

You can also create a potpourri of different living fence trees, which can provide fruits, fiber and food for the home – a real edible landscape.

Be sure to talk about your living fence project with your neighbors; they can be a great resource. Most of the time, Ticos are more than willing to offer up living fence trimmings, ideal for planting. Just be sure they are planted in the same week they are cut; otherwise, they may dry out and die.

Last but not least, be sure your newly planted living fence is kept weed-free during the first year of growth. Competition from weeds can cause serious losses. When starting trees, if you are planning to use barbed wire, I’ve found it’s best to tie the wire to the newly planted tree with twine, instead of using fence staples, which have a tendency to damage tender branch cuttings and cause losses. Once your trees are well established in the second year, you can remove the twine and staple the wire.

For more information on tropical gardens and eco-garden and farm designs for Costa Rica, visit www.thenewdawncenter.info or e-mail Ed at thenewdawncenter@yahoo.com.


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